Rewilding is currently one of the hot topics in conservation in many parts of the world. Although the word rewilding is new in entering mainstream language, the idea has been around for some time. Take for example the many beautiful parks in a city like London. Over several years the park authorities have set aside wild areas for nature to have a home. Reed beds have been artificially planted and now it is possible on a summer’s walk to a central London park to hear birds such as Reed Warbler and Cetti’s Warbler. There is an explosion of popular books on this topic which graces the window displays of bookshops. The growing interest in rewilding (sometimes simply termed wilding) can be a powerful conservation tool if it can be part of the business model for property developers and hotel developers. In this article, I look back and summarise some of the achievements of Jetwing Vil Uyana, an iconic hotel in Sri Lanka that resulted in a number of new milestones in the tourism industry.
The construction of Jetwing Vil Uyana was probably the first time a hotel chain anywhere in the world made a significant work of hydraulic engineering a core element of the construction of a new hotel. In fact the hydraulic engineering work required was as costly as the construction of the hotel. It also paved the way for a new partner in hotel development. Traditionally architects and developers worked with teams in the construction industry that had a skill set in constructing buildings. Before Vil Uyana no one could have foreseen specialist engineers and contractors who built reservoirs and the associated irrigations works would have a role in the development of hotels.
Another key milestone was the wholesale absorption of a project pioneered by a conservation NGO as a central plank in the development of a hotel. Just before the start of the new millennium, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust created a man-made wetland in London. Many conservation NGOs including the WWT and the RSPB had for many years had experience in managing water levels at their sites to optimise conditions for wildlife. However, the London Wetland Centre was probably the first in the world to engineer a man-made wetland on this scale for the specific purpose of creating an entirely new wetland for wildlife in an urban landscape. Much of the project in terms of cost, time and engineering was to do with hydraulic engineering. Conservation NGOs usually take inspiration from the private sector for their business models to generate income. In an unusual role reversal, Jetwing Vil Uyana borrowed entirely from a conservation NGO for a new business model.
Once the cross fertilisation of ideas and expanding the skill set of the teams required was successfully achieved at Jetwing Vil Uyana, it paved the way for the others to follow suit. Other hotels in Sri Lanka have followed suit and it is hoped that in the future many more will do so. Jetwing Vil Uyana also demonstrated that rewilding is something that need not be left as a task that is undertaken by conservation NGOs. It can be integrated into a commercial business model in tourism. It is therefore not just a charitable act from the CSR budget but more importantly a core component of what will drive the profits of business projects. Aligning profitability with rewilding can be a hugely important aspect of developing sustainable business models.
Rewilding is a relatively new word to enter the mainstream. As of the 2020s, it has become firmly established and there are many popular books on the subject. So much so that a leading natural history bookseller such as NHBS in the UK will even have some of their email publicity newsletters themed on rewilding. Projects such as the Knepp project in the UK have caught the public imagination on how businesses can undertake rewilding. At the time Jetwing Vil Uyana was completed rewilding as a term was not known. Habitat rehabilitation had of course been around for many years but had been mainly the preserve of those tasked with conservation in the state and NGO sectors.
There were a number of factors as to why Jetwing Vil Uyana quickly inspired other hoteliers to follow suit. First and foremost was its visual impact. Many people were simply blown away on their first visit. Secondly, it was now abundantly clear that a wetland nature reserve could be created from scratch and its costs recovered in a commercial venture. It probably also helped that two respected conglomerates, Jetwing and Hayleys, were behind the project, lending it a certain commercial legitimacy. The key people behind it were also recognised as leaders in the local tourism industry. Herbert Cooray and his son Hiran and daughter Shiromal were known for being risk takers who pushed the boundaries in tourism. All of this would have helped the tourism industry to see that rewilding can be a central plank in sustainable tourism.
Another area where a role reversal was to be seen was in the use of the site for nature interpretation. The use of the hotel on the lines of a nature reserve managed by a conservation NGO was part of the original brief given to the architect Sunela Jayewardene. It was not new for hotels to have naturalists. Many game lodges in the world have for decades had naturalists. In Sri Lanka, more traditional tourist hotels which were part of package tourism and not quite in the style of game lodges had also begun to have naturalists. This was thanks to the pioneering work by Professor Sarath Kotagama and his team at FOGSL who sought to engage with tourism and make them partners in conservation. Vil Uyana took this a stage further. It was no longer a case of adding a naturalist to a hotel. Instead, it was a case of conservation, research and nature interpretation being a core element of the business model inspired by the work of conservation NGOs. The property benefited from experienced naturalists such as Nadeera Weerasinghe being involved from inception. He was followed by Chandra Jayawardana, a former Assistant Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. His protege Chaminda Jayasekara who started as a deputy naturalist progressed to becoming the deputy manager. Chaminda has led a number of initiatives which has resulted not only in raising the profile of the property but also drawn attention to the impact a hotel naturalist can make. This in turn has elevated the role of a hotel naturalist. His personal progress has also highlighted a difference in the employment model of Jetwing. Jetwing Hotels insisted on a model that the hotel naturalists should first and foremost be accountable to the General Manager of the hotel and be a part of the hotel’s executive team. This meant right from the start they would take turns to be the Duty Manager and were never divorced from the commercial realities of running a hotel. As a result, Chaminda has progressed as both a hotelier and naturalist. Similarly, so has the first Vil Uyana naturalist Nadeera who is now the General Manager of another property whilst also pursuing a parallel life as a naturalist.
One of Chaminda's key contributions was to draw attention to Grey Slender Loris occupying the regenerating scrub forest. Hiran Cooray, with the management team, immediately agreed that the planned development of more chalets should be immediately halted. Hiran and Shiromal Cooray had earlier endorsed the proposal to use the London Wetland Centre as a role model before they had even visited it. When they eventually did, they concluded that the original decision was the right one and Jetwing should stay on course despite the intervention of that year’s monsoon setting the project back by a year and growing concern at what was then being seen as a risky project that could fail spectacularly. These were not the only risk factors. The Coorays had also engaged a maverick environmental architect, Sunela Jayewardene, whose default mode of relaxation was to eschew the luxury hotels preferred by her contemporaries and instead retreat to her mud and thatch cottage between the northern slopes of the Knuckles Wilderness and Wasgomuwa National Park. Herbert Cooray who began his career as a building contractor was aware of the risks. But rather wisely, he knew that he should allow his children to take risks and even fail as part of their development as industry leaders.
The addition of a wetland also changed the outlook on pricing. The original ambitions for a tourist hotel had been modest with the target audience being the mass market at a low price point. This seemed appropriate as the original location had nothing special about it given that it was on degraded slash and burn agricultural land and abandoned paddy lands. The Sigiriya rock, a famous and iconic archaeological site, was too far way to be a feature. However, as the concept changed to developing a hotel set within a man-made wetland, the ambitions for the target audience and pricing changed. The final price achieved was approximately treble what had been envisaged originally.
Although not a part of the physical aspects of the design and construction of the hotel, it is also appropriate to mention the role played under the auspices of the Jetwing Eternal Earth Project (JEEP). The project spearheaded by Kumar Senaratne, the then head of HR, sought to move away from the practice of hiring skilled workers from outside and instead train people locally. This was a bold step as a small luxury hotel like Vil Uyana would normally seek to hire a lot of people with several years of experience across all levels. But that would have resulted in very few jobs for the local people as none of them had experience in tourism. Jetwing launched a long-running and intensive programme to train local people. It also decided that if the locals did not speak English as fluently as would be expected, that would be the charm of hiring local people and providing employment and social mobility for local people who came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In a parallel article on the history of Jetwing Vil Uyana, I have dwelt on the importance of finding the right architect. For the success of this pioneering project, it was crucial that Jetwing found an architect who was first and foremost an environmentalist at heart. This was needed not just to stay true to the concept but to overcome the many challenges the project faced. At times, some lateral thinking was needed to fuse wetland creation with the logistics of operating a tourist hotel. In Sri Lanka, the architect of a hotel also has a huge influence on the landscaping of the hotel. Having the right architect was key to providing the right kind of habitat creation. Many hotels around the world have planted trees on their grounds. In fact, not far from Vil Uyana there are two hotels which share the grounds around a lake and have many fine examples of old trees. These hotels are two of the best places in Sri Lanka for people to learn about the local trees as they are almost like a private arboretum with labelled trees. But as with many hotels, the ground is mown and manicured. There is relatively little seemingly untidy undergrowth of tangled vegetation, decaying branches and leaves which provide cover and the habitat for fungi, insects and the complex web of life. As a result, there is an absence of small mammals such as mice and shrews to bring in larger predators which are regularly seen in Vil Uyana.
The RSPB in the UK has been campaigning for many years alongside other conservation NGOs on the need to create a home for nature. Even their magazine is now titled ‘Nature’s Home’. Many conservation NGOs encourage householders to set aside a large patch for weed plants such as nettles which are larval food plants for butterflies. European Union legislation for many years has paid farmers subsidies to set aside strips of land and even to plant them with wildflower mixes to provide habitat for pollinators and other invertebrates.
At Vil Uyana the concept that the hotels grounds will have extensive areas of regenerating natural scrub forest and grassy meadows was embraced. The rate at which wildlife colonised has been remarkable. Soon after the wetland features were constructed, crocodiles found their way, prompting a visit from the Department of Wildlife Conservation who heard rumours of a hotel having crocodiles. The Marsh or Mugger Crocodiles that do not turn man-eater, continue to have an amicable pool sharing arrangement with hotel guests. As the rewilding continued, successive hotel naturalists began to observe a mouth-watering array of sought-after mammals including Rusty-spotted Cat, Jungle Cat, Fishing Cat and Golden Palm Civet. All because of the rewilding vision to make a home for nature as much as possible in its entirety and not just to have trees for shade and ornamentation. Nature can look untidy compared to the Victorian ethic of ‘green concrete’ with short mown, manicured grounds. But even in cities like London, this has given way to many of the city parks having wildflower meadows and reedbeds. Even people who live in city apartments are making a home for nature by having potted plants on their balcony which are suitable for pollinators like bumblebees and butterflies.
Vil Uyana’s success was that long before rewilding had entered the mainstream vocabulary it undertook rewilding as a fundamental component of its business model to create a small luxury hotel with a sustainability ethic. Even the chalets were designed such that they could be used as a wildlife viewing hide. There is a growing appetite to re-connect with nature across all price categories. The continuously strengthening combination of nature and luxury at Vil Uyana has allowed it to be one of the luxury hotels of the first choice in the area despite increasing competition. The hotel also used the abandoned paddy fields as a feature by rehabilitating them and used traditional strains of rice and farmed them in an environmentally friendly way. This model was also subsequently used in Jetwing Kaduruketha close to the east coast of Sri Lanka.
Despite everything that could go wrong in the early phases of construction and some things did, a magnificent result has been achieved which has provided inspiration for tourism and property developers around the world. With many of the engineering challenges overcome, it now provides a template for other property developers around the world to integrate habitat creation on an ambitious scale into their property development projects whether it is for housing, commercial property or tourism.